Friday, April 28, 2017

Review: Tony's Place Tomato Pie, Philadelphia PA

Despite the many new and wonderful artisan pizza shops opening all over America, my heart is most warmed by the old-school pie slingers, where you can absorb the ambiance and the flavors of pizza the way that your parents, perhaps even your grandparents did.

With that as background, I was excited to learn about an old-time Philly pizzamaker that had flown under my radar. An anonymous comment left on this blog cited Tony's Place as one of the last hidden culinary gems in Philly. Well, hidden no more!

The Northeast section of Philly has long been a residential - almost suburban - section of the city with an entirely different feel and culture than center city or South Philly. Always home to immigrants and the next generation, the Irish and Italians have made way for a wonderful melting pot of new immigrants and their restaurants. 

According to Philadelphia food critic Craig Laban, one in five residents in the Northeast are immigrants; we tried one of his recommended Uzbeki restaurants and it was a superb meal and a great value. Laban says:
Russian, Ukrainian, and Indian immigrants are easily found in the Somerton and Bustleton neighborhoods; Brazilians have settled in Rhawnhurst; and Vietnamese and Chinese predominate in Crescentville and Castor.
Tony's Place has been a Mayfair (section of NE Philly) landmark since 1951, and even though the current location was entirely rebuilt after a fire in 1989, the feel inside (and the look outside) has a 1950s or 1960s vibe.

Before considering the pizza at Tony's Place, we need to define tomato pie.

In the parts of Jersey where I grew up, tomato pie can be a synonym for pizza, or it can be the very Trenton-specific version where the round dough is topped first with a modest amount of cheese and then with a generous amount of uncooked crushed tomatoes. There is no better purveyor of that version than DeLorenzo's Tomato Pies.

In most of Philadelphia, "tomato pie" means a rectangular construct, typically sold at bakeries, where thick but light and airy dough is topped with a dense cooked tomato sauce and perhaps a sprinkle of aged Italian cheese. Typically eaten at room temperature, I enjoy it but generally regard it as "Sicilian pizza that needs cheese and a re-heat."
Swimming in red sauce
The tomato pie at Tony's Place might be called "upside down" pizza in other places; the cheese goes on first, and then it is blanketed with a rich, dark red tomato sauce. I will note that as soon as we entered Tony's Place, the old-time smell of good dough in the oven and cooked-down tomato sauce was both exhilarating and intoxicating. It left little doubt that I was in for an old-time pizza treat.
Nice char under the hood
A full-size 16" pie was priced at just $10.  Our order of a sausage-topped pie, a beer, and an iced tea came to less than $20 including tax.  Speaking of sausage, they do it the right way at Tony's Place - the $2 Maglio sausage topping was applied raw in chunks to cook and brown on the pie.

Our friendly waitress brought our pie swiftly, and we tore in. This pizza sported a thin cracker-y crust, mozzarella first, then a thick pool of deep red sauce that was still steaming when it came to the table. My initial impression was that, as a bar pie, this was a close cousin to the  wonderful stuff at Lee's Tavern in Staten Island, another hidden gem making incredible and cheap pies for the neighborhood.

This crust was rigid and mostly crunchy with just a bit of chew; its only shortcoming is that it could not stand up long to the steaming sea of red sauce, so that after the first slice, the initial bite of subsequent slices became a bit soggy. 
Crisp, crunchy, cracker-y cornicione
The sausage did its job perfectly, adding that salty and greasy element which blended perfectly with the other toppings. The mozzarella cheese added density and texture, but not a lot of flavor. Tony's offers a provolone pie, and I'd be curious to see how that changes the overall taste. The sauce was wonderfully old-world. There is no right answer regarding cooked vs uncooked tomatoes on the pie; this deep rich dark sauce was perfect for this pie.
Thumbs up for Tony's Place
We ate our pizzas at a slow time between lunch and dinner on a weekday; I imagine that on a warm spring or summer night, the joint is teeming with beer-and-pizza softball players. This pie may not change your life, but it will enrich your world. It was a long drive from West Chester and it was well worth it. Destination pizza and ambiance, and a grand bargain.

Tony's Place Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato